September 30, 2004
'The core of all humor is unhappiness.'
Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor of the New Yorker.
Freud was here first: he wrote, nearly a century ago, "Behind every funny story is a grievance."
"Humor at Michigan" is a new, three-year multidisciplinary study at the University of Michigan which seeks to understand more about humor.
Their material is all the cartoons ever published in the New Yorker since it began on February 1, 1925.
For the first time, the entire database of New Yorker cartoons is available on 2 CDs, included with the book ($60 list, $40.80 at amazon) "The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker," to be published next Tuesday by Black Dog & Leventhal.
The book itself includes 2,500 selected cartoons, but the CDs contain all 68,647 cartoons published up to the magazine's 79th anniversary last February.
Glenn Collins interviewed both the scientists behind the study and Mankoff for a story which appeared in Tuesday's New York Times.
Toonology: Scientists Try to Find Out What's So Funny About Humor
So this group of scientists is setting out to study humor, and they wire up their research subjects and - hang on.
Is this a New Yorker cartoon?
But now it is The New Yorker cartoon itself that will become the object of scientific study.
As in: How do people perceive that specific things are funny? What happens when they laugh? How does humor evolve?
And just why are people born with a gift for laughter and a sense that the world is, er, mad?
These and many other not obviously risible mysteries will be addressed by researchers at the University of Michigan as they examine a vast, ready-made database of mirth: virtually every cartoon published by the magazine since it began on Feb. 1, 1925.
The three-year interdisciplinary experimental project is called Humor at Michigan, in which wit will be studied from psychological, medical, anthropological, cultural, historical and other points of view.
"We need to know a whole lot more about humor," said the project's organizer, Charles R. Eisendrath, director of the Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the university.
"We hope to learn why we think things are funny, and whether it matters. And if the joke is on us, that's fine."
Actually, the joke could be on everyone: the cartoon database is available not only to researchers but, for the first time, to the general public.
It resides on two compact discs included in "The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker," a 656-page book being published next Tuesday by Black Dog & Leventhal ($60).
The book will include 2,500 cartoons, but the discs hold all 68,647 cartoons published up to the magazine's 79th anniversary last February.
"These cartoons nicely match the kinds of empirical methods we can employ," said Dr. Richard L. Lewis, associate professor of psychology and linguistics at the university.
He explains that cartoons-as-specimens are relatively uniform; most consist of a single-panel black-and-white illustration with a short-sentence caption.
"The fruit fly is used in decoding the mysteries of the genome," said Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker and editor of the new anthology, "because the chromosomes are not complicated, and because its short life cycle makes it ideal for following hereditary changes. Well, the ideas in cartoons are like that: easily visible. And the ideas that prompted them have an easily observable life cycle."
Dr. Lewis is a cognitive psychologist who studies psycholinguistics, the mental processes involved in language comprehension.
In previous studies he has tracked research subjects' eyeball movements as they read texts at a rate of 300 or 400 milliseconds per word.
Now this technique will confront the cartoon.
"There is an incredible amount of cognitive machinery involved in understanding a cartoon, and one interesting thing about humor is that you get it or you don't after two or three seconds or so," Dr. Lewis said.
During one planned experiment, test viewers will eyeball cartoon images as well as captions, "and every four milliseconds we'll get a readout of where people are looking."
Beyond an understanding of comprehension itself, medical studies, planned to begin next year, may explore the relation of laughter to serotonin levels, or test for links to the immune system.
Researchers will also be looking for physiological markers that could be humor signatures.
Dr. Lewis said there was some evidence to suggest that eye-pupil dilation "might correlate with the rating of cartoons for wit" (the larger the pupil, the funnier the cartoon).
Beyond this, "if we can map certain processes of humor perception onto brain regions," he said, "we could use functional magnetic resonance imaging tests to depict blood flow in the brain on a second-by-second basis, possibly revealing other signature effects."
The investigators' working hypothesis "is that humor is evolutionary, an adaptive response," said Dr. Richard Gonzalez, chairman of the university's psychology department.
"But it could have developed as a function of our brain size, or something else; we don't really know."
Although thinkers from Plato to Hobbes and Freud to Wittgenstein have indulged in the grim sport of humor hypothesis, "the kinds of theories we have about humor are so rudimentary as to be pathetic," said Dr. Daniel Herwitz, director of the university's Institute for the Humanities.
There is some consensus that humor is a complex phenomenon subsuming external social context, interior emotional response and the human capabilities of perception, memory and judgment.
"But these elements are part of most social and linguistic transactions," he said, "and much of that just isn't funny."
To Mr. Mankoff, who qualifies as something of an expert, "the core of all humor, the reason for it all, is unhappiness," he said, though he added that he spent a mostly enjoyable year editing the cartoon database for the new anthology.
He describes his role in the research project as "a stimulator and gadfly," explaining that the academic collaboration started after he began lecturing at the university in 2002.
He will spend a year as a varsity fellow during the research project.
Mr. Mankoff, 60, is a former Skinnerian Ph.D. candidate in experimental psychology at Queens College in the 1970's. ("I quit when my experimental animal died," he said of a pigeon with a number but not a name. "I took it as an omen and became a cartoonist.")
He began selling his work to The New Yorker in 1977, became a contract cartoonist in 1981 and the editor in 1997.
Mr. Mankoff said it would be possible to study the evolution of comic forms through cartoon elements.
For example, Dr. Gonzalez, the Michigan psychologist, said the anthology could provide a window into sexual stereotyping and how it had changed over time.
Before sexual harassment was seen as a serious offense, the "geezer chasing maiden" cartoon was a staple.
So were women wielding rolling pins like baseball bats.
New Yorker cartoons are organized by decades in the book, and the database can be used to track such comic evolutions as the one that saw Father Time mutate in the late 1960's into the Grim Reaper - who, in turn, evolved from a menacer in a land of pestilence into a scold in a consumerist paradise. ("Relax," says the modern Reaper to a worried woman, "I've come for your toaster.")
But Mr. Mankoff says it is possible to organize cartoons not just chronologically but taxonomically, in relation to four vectors: caption, image and two values he terms "real" and "unreal."
"Most gags consist of an unreal image with a rather ordinary caption," he said, citing a cartoon that shows a party guest speaking to a desperate woman on a window ledge, referring to a man on the same ledge around the corner.
The guest says, cheerfully, "There's someone I'd like you to meet."
Or, Mr. Mankoff went on, they might couple a commonplace image (married couple) with an outlandish caption ("I'm sorry, dear. I wasn't listening. Could you repeat what you've said since we've been married?").
His two other categories are "surreal" and "slice of life."
The first applies when both caption and image are unusual (crocodiles talking about eating their young); slice of life applies when neither caption nor image is unusual, just funny.
The Michigan levity project is to get $100,000 in financing from the university's Institute for the Humanities, the psychology department, the Depression Center of the medical school and the university's Rackham Graduate School.
After that money runs out, it may have to turn to outside sources. Dr. Gonzalez was asked if he thought the project would be taken seriously.
"I hope that we could do work that would not be easy to mock," he replied.
And Mr. Eisendrath noted that "depression is a major health problem in the United States," adding, "So anyone who questions the value of a study of humor literally needs his head examined."
There is always, of course, the Heisenbergian concern that the more humor is studied, the more elusive it will become, or as Dr. Herwitz put it: "Humor is like Groucho Marx. It refuses to join any club that would have it as a member."
Mr. Mankoff preferred to paraphrase E. B. White, who said dissecting humor was like dissecting a frog: nobody is much interested, and the frog dies.
"I come here not to bury the cartoon," Mr. Mankoff said of the project, "but to praise it."
Portable Satellite TV - I want one
I just saw this on the Yahoo newswire: pretty impressive.
From Toshiba, with a 2.5" LCD screen.
Alas, only a prototype.
How they crammed the satellite on my roof into this little beauty is way beyond me.
Modulo = Nike + Marc Newsom
The new Modulo consists of a sock-like inner shoe with a rubber sole and a bright blue plastic outer layer.
Marc Newsom says he got his inspiration when he was working at the Russian Space Institute and looked at pictures of astronauts who jumped with special socks on the walls of their spacecraft for exercise.
The convergence of fashion and sport continues apace.
Could be the de facto footwear of passengers aboard Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spaceline,
whose debut flight is scheduled for blast-off in 2007.
[via reluct.com and Another Magazine]
The mini Sean Penn festival continued at chez joe last night, with this movie on DVD.
Excellent, just like "Mystic River."
Does Sean Penn ever appear in a bad movie?
I mean, as Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" he stole the film, and he's equally good now, 22 years later.
He's now reached the point in my mind where I'll automatically see a movie he's in.
He joins Andy Garcia, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, and a couple others I can't remember in this elite group.
Naomi Watts was electric: I can't believe she didn't win the Academy Award for her performance (though she was nominated), which took her from a carefree life as an upscale suburban housewife down into the hellholes of drug addiction, cheap motels, and murder.
Mac Hack: Safari Print Button
My local Mac users group most times covers stuff that's so far above my head technically, it might as well be in orbit.
But today there was a very useful and understandable hint.
If you use Safari as your Mac browser, well, to print you have to click on "File" up top, then scroll down to "Print," then hit the Print button in the drop-down menu.
2) A blue globe will appear to the left of the "address"
3) Drag the globe to your Bookmarks Bar
4) You'll be asked to name the bookmark
5) Type the word Print
6) As they say at Nextel: Done
Amazingly, it works.
Nicely bypasses the trip to the File menu and subsequent scrolldown/choosing maneuver.
'Nothing Matters' - by E.M. Cioran
Everything is possible, and yet nothing is. All is permitted, and yet again, nothing. No matter which way we go, it is no better than any other. It is all the same whether you achieve something or not, have faith or not, just as it is all the same whether you cry or remain silent. There is an explanation for everything, and yet there is none. Everything is both real and unreal, normal and absurd, splendid and insipid. There is nothing worth more than anything else, nor any idea better than any other. Why grow sad from one's sadness and delight in one's joy? What does it matter whether our tears come from pleasure or pain? Love your unhappiness and hate your happiness, mix everything up, scramble it all! Be a snowflake dancing in the air, a flower floating downstream! Have courage when you don't need to, and be a coward when you must be brave! Who knows? You may still be a winner! And if you lose, does it really matter? Is there anything to win in this world? All gain is a loss, and all loss is a gain. Why always expect a definite stance, clear ideas, meaningful words? I feel as if I should spout fire in response to all the questions which were ever put, or not put, to me.
'Beautiful Ghosts' - by Eliot Pattison
I never, ever miss an opportunity to feature one of my readers and their work.
Tuesday evening I heard for the first time from one Eliot Pattison, commenting on my September 1 post about the Great Chinese Internet Firewall.
I read with great interest the recent bookofjoe piece on China's new internet censorship. I write mystery novels set in the Tibetan gulag of China and I've been getting repeated reports that access to my website is blocked in China. I don't disguise in those books my condemnation of what the Chinese have done to their minority populations and know the government is unhappy with my books - but this new form of high tech filtering reaching outside the Chinese borders raises censorship to a whole new level.
It was off to Amazon for a look at his books.
I mean, "mystery novels set in the Tibetan gulag?"
You've never read such great reviews, one 5-star one after another.
After reading them, I bought his newest novel, "Beautiful Ghosts."
I mean, you read the reviews (below), and tell me you're not just a little bit interested....
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A World Apart - June 22, 2004
Reviewer: Susan Childers (Indianapolis, IN USA)
Eliot Pattison's details quickly transport the reader to a world that seems so distant in time and space and yet sadly is a part of the world we live in now. He teaches the reader so very much about the Tibetan culture and the Chinese Cultural Revolution through his books while weaving a tale of intrigue and surprise twists. Pattison's stories tell of man's weaknesses and also celebrate the power of compassion and spirituality.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Engrossing - June 12, 2004
Reviewer: B.J. Mountford (North Carolina Coast)
Pattison reminds me of Michener's early books, with his tremendous empathy for the people and culture. This is one of those books that you don't want to come to an end.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Tightly crafted and dynamic - May 25, 2004
Reviewer: David Koelle (Seattle, WA United States)
The fourth Shan novel from Eliot Pattison is, in my opinion, his most polished and easiest for a first time reader. The formulaic corpse in the first few pages is duly introduced, allowing the author to get onto his primary theme of Buddhism. The protagonists and antagonists come across as complex, conflicted individuals and a little less, in this work, as political stereotypes (except for the real baddies of course). It's not too hard to figure out who did the deeds, but as before, all the joy is in the well-paced journey to discovery.
Mr. Pattison uses space... chortens, mountains, temples, geology, in very interesting ways in all of his books, with parallel outer and inner spaces. I think this is done very well in this work. "Beautiful Ghosts" can well stand alone, without requiring knowledge of the prior books. If one has read the previous novels, the characters seem like old friends and allow Mr. Pattison to use careful understatement in the context of our previous encounters, especially with the learned and kindly senior lamas.
The inner struggles of Shan are deep and wrenching, but at the same time not as disorganized, overwhelming, or at times as overwrought as in the earlier mysteries. One can almost sense him going sane or perhaps growing spiritually from book to book. He seems to be growing into himself despite the very personal hits he takes in this book. Suggestions for future themes abound for Himalaya devotees.... Bon, cross-border trade with India, relationships with the Tibetan exile community, etc. I can't wait to see what is next.
11 of 15 people found the following review helpful:
Engaging Chinese mystery - March 28, 2004
Reviewer: Harriet Klausner
At one time Inspector Shan Tao Yun felt his life in Beijing was excellent, but he made the error of following personal ethics and adhering to the law rather than the party line; he alienated a person very high in the Chinese governmental hierarchy. The "court" sentenced Shan to toil at a remote work camp where he would not see his wife or son ever again. However, he no longer works at the camp; instead, Shan lives in Tibet amidst outlawed Buddhist monks. Having become a non-person of no status, Shan can never go home.
Shan attends a ceremony rededicating an ancient ruined monastery. While there, he finds evidence that a murder recently occurred amidst the devastated monastery. Local officials want to investigate dangling the opportunity to go back to Beijing and see his son as a carrot. Others want him quietly to leave the area. Worse, the FBI and Beijing officials are involved too. Hoping to protect the secret group of Buddhist monks that have befriended him, Shan begins to make inquiries that will take him far away from the Himalayas across the Pacific.
This is an engaging Chinese mystery starring a delightful lead protagonist, but the real star is the vivid and deep look into Tibet and other Himalayan locations. Readers obtain a taste of Buddhism and the Chinese Communist government's efforts to eliminate the belief system. Shan is a wonderful sleuth finding himself pulled in several directions, but following his personal ethics regardless of the cost to his heart. "Beautiful Ghosts" is a beautiful thriller.
Fits on your keychain, runs on 2 AAA batteries.
It's on the left in the picture above.
Perfect for your friends in Pierre and Fargo.